That is only half the story. They may have lost track of two more pictures that Stern was forced to sell for good.
Andreas Achenbach’s 1837 landscape was offered at Van Ham Fine Art Auctions in Cologne in May. Encouraged by Van Ham, the consignor agreed to negotiate with Stern’s estate. The painting was presented in a ceremony at the Canadian Embassy in Berlin.
Two other pictures in the Van Ham catalog of the May event also belonged to Stern, yet the consignor of these refused to negotiate with the dealer’s heirs.
He said his grandfather bought the works legally at the 1937 Nazi-forced auction of Stern’s gallery, according to a person familiar with his letter to Van Ham.
“This kind of situation happens frequently,” said Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe. “Heirs are often dependent on the goodwill of private owners. Some consignors may not want to deal with what their grandparents did.”
Van Ham returned the two paintings to the consignor and declined to reveal his name to Stern’s heirs, leaving them with little hope of recovering the artworks.
The Stern estate’s experience spotlights the difficulties heirs face in tracing and reclaiming the countless Nazi-looted artworks that have vanished into German private collections, even when they are offered for sale by auction houses.
“Members of the art trade have been reluctant to work with claimants on the return of Holocaust-era works,” Clarence Epstein, director of the Max Stern Art Restitution Project at Concordia University in Montreal, wrote in an e-mail.
While museums are morally accountable under international principles endorsed by the German government on returning Nazi-looted art, German art dealers and auction houses often pursue strictly legal arguments. Under German law, the statute of limitations for theft expires after 30 years, and claimants have little hope of winning title in court.
Max Stern took over his father’s Dusseldorf art gallery in 1934, a year after the Nazis seized power. Stern was informed in 1935 that as a Jew, he could no longer practice his profession.
After the forced sale of his gallery’s contents at the Lempertz auction house in Cologne -- for which Stern never got the revenue -- he fled to London in 1938, later making his way to Canada. He settled in Montreal and became one of the most important art dealers in Canada.
He died in 1987 without children, leaving the bulk of his estate to three universities: Concordia and McGill in Montreal and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 2002, the colleges began a campaign to recover the lost art, creating the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, administered by Concordia.
The two pictures returned to Van Ham’s consignor -- “Canal in Dordrecht” by Hans Herrmann and Jakob Becker’s “Children’s Festival in the Country” -- are among about 400 Stern’s heirs are trying to trace.
They have recovered 11 so far. Epstein says most of the rest are probably in German private collections.
“There are still thousands and thousands of works of looted art that have not been returned and the art trade continues to sell disputed works,” Webber said.
“The claimants are powerless in the process. The balance of power is in favor of the possessor of the art.”
While Sotheby’s (BID) and Christie’s International have teams of researchers checking provenance, the smaller German houses often rely uniquely on the services of the Art Loss Register, a London-based company with a database of stolen art.
Yet all three Stern paintings in the Van Ham catalog for the May sale have been listed since July 2005 with photographs on lostart.de, the German government’s database of art missing after World War II, according to Michael Franz, who administrates the website.
Van Ham submits all catalogs to the Art Loss Register, Anne Srikiow, a spokeswoman for Van Ham, said by telephone from Cologne. If there is any reason to be skeptical about a work’s provenance, the company conducts some basic checks, she said.
“We can’t do it with every piece,” Srikiow said. It is not company policy to routinely check lostart.de, she said.
In contrast, Sotheby’s has four provenance researchers, said Richard Aronowitz, who heads the London research team. They check the painting itself, the company’s own database built up over 15 years, the artist’s catalogue raisonne and the main lists of lost works published by national governments.
The findings are sent to the Art Loss Register, which runs a second check.
“Of say 5,000 lots that we examine a year, 50 to 60 may raise concerns serious enough that we have to send someone to investigate in archives abroad,” Aronowitz said. “Out of those maybe 10 to 15 will be unrestituted Nazi-looted artworks.”
When disputed works come up at auction in Germany, claimants may not be able to prevent a sale even if they succeed in tracking down the work.
In 2010, heirs of the painter Max Liebermann failed to prevent the sale of a sketch by the artist at the Hamburg auction house Hauswedell & Nolte.
The heirs’ lawyer wrote requesting more research before the sale of the sketch, which he said was probably seized by the Nazis or sold under duress. The auction house argued that the consignor had proven legal title and said the claim was unfounded.
Return to Consignor
Where Sotheby’s keeps hold of disputed pieces to encourage consignors to negotiate, Van Ham returns them to the consignor. Srikiow said German data protection laws prevent the company from passing the names of consignors of Nazi-looted art to claimants.
For foreign buyers, purchasing prewar art at auction in Germany is a case of “caveat emptor,” said Christian Bauschke, a lawyer at Bauschke Braeuer in Berlin.
Bauschke represents the New York dealer Richard Feigen, who in 2009 agreed to return a picture to the Max Stern estate that he had purchased from the Kunsthaus Lempertz nine years earlier. The work was seized by U.S. customs. He is now seeking compensation from the auction house in a lawsuit scheduled to be heard by a court in Cologne in December.
The German police also can take action, Rene Allonge, the officer who leads the art crime department of the Berlin force said by telephone.
“In cases of theft and confiscation dating back to World War II, the criminal act is too far in the past, the perpetrator is probably dead, and the statutes of limitations have expired,” Allonge said. “But even in such cases, it is possible to open an investigation on suspicion of handling stolen goods.”
Proving that the suspect was aware the object in question was stolen can be very difficult, Allonge said.
“But police can search an auction house’s premises and expose the identity of the consignor,” he said. That can help heirs pursue title in civil courts, he said.
To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.